The Real Contribution of Sharing Culture

A historian from the future is perusing my library shelf.  She leafs through some books, scrolls through some PDFs.  Hm, she thinks “they were really obsessed with sharing.  Here’s a study of how sharing software code changed the software industry.  Here’s a book about how sharing wireless networks led to new ways of providing communications access.  And here’s a whole folder full of articles and books about the culture of the time, describing people sharing images, and ideas, more quickly and more easily than they could have before.  But I don’t understand – what was so important about that kind of sharing?  It’s fine to share media that are stored in a format that makes them instantly reproducible at extremely low cost, but how did this change their cuture?”

My imagined future historian is struggling with determining how the low-barrier to entry sharing that is so central to digital culture might have broader and more distributed cultural effects.  Sharing software code is easy: it can be duplicated perfectly and used over and over.  There’s a magic to this kind of sharing – everyone can use the information, without diminishing the original source.  But using this kind of sharing as a model for digital cultre is perhaps risky.  Sometimes there are physical barriers, as in the case of wireless – it’s easy to share connectivity, but it’s harder to do in a way that doesn’t diminish the amount of bandwidth.  Sharing culture (videos, images, ideas) has happened forever.  The difference now is that ideas in the form of data are much more easily available, and easy to manipulate.

So far, our historian concludes that the success  sharing is intrinsically related to the properties of digital data; either its reproducability or the low barriers to participation that plentiful data provide.  But she observes something else – that we are fascinated by the culture of sharing even when it doesn’t have anything to do with these properties.  When the barriers are high, and the objects physical.  That explains this recent report by Latitude Research, which investigates whether sharing online makes people more likely to share offline.  They conclude that online sharing does inspire people to share offline – citing examples such as Freecycle, which I’ve used to give away various cumbersome household objects.  They also argue that people are willing to share “office space, travel accommodations, textbooks, kids clothes, parking spaces, garden plots, private planes, camera lenses, luxury handbags, boats, household items, and more“.  It’s not just stuff that we feel we want to share – it’s knowledge as well.  My research on community wireless revealed that wireless groups can be incubators for policy change and knowledge exchange, even when they don’t succeed at connecting their communities.

But, my historian asks, “what’s distinctive about this, now?  People have shared forever.  Digital culture does not inspire us to lend our neighbour a drill.”  She goes to the park, sits down and thinks about what happened in (our) time:  Global restructuring of capital kept people in work, made cities more cosmopolitan, and changed the likelihood of meeting one’s neighbours.  Formal education systems became more rigorous.  Major financial institutions failed.  Across all of this continued the practices that were first associated with digital media.  It almost began to seem as if digital media made sharing possible.

It hasn’t, of course.  An economy based on shared code has emerged because of the properties of code, the norms surrounding its production, and the cultural shift that our historian is investigating.  But one of the things that she’s observing is that these norms, and this culture, are powerful, and impacting a set of things from “open” movements to “open source hardware” to “coworking” and “hacklabs” that are not exactly new but which have a new cultural inflection.  In investigating the opportunities and limits of these norms and culture, she has more than enough to work on.  Doesn’t she?